In the mood for Cucumbers!

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Summer Margarita

(Remember this, Eliz.?)
A couple of summers ago, I had the good fortune of being invited to tour the home garden of RickBayless, (famous chef, cookbook author, restaurateur and television personality) and then to lunch in his wonderful Chicago restaurant, Frontera Grill.  Lest I make myself sound like someone important, I should add that Chef Bayless donated the outing to a school auction and the winner invited me to go along.  Lucky me!  Anyway, his city home has an amazing outdoor kitchen and a beautiful garden in which they grow vegetables for his dishes…I especially remember the tiny rows of micro-greens.  I also especially, and fondly, remember the outstanding Cucumber Margarita that we had with our lunch.  It was bright and fresh, prepared right at the table, and so perfect for a hot summer day.  I checked to see if the recipe was published that summer and it was not, and I never checked again until I started thinking about cucumbers for this post.  And there it was…right on his website…I’ll bet he got lots of requests for the recipe!
First make some simple syrup:
In a small saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 cups  water and 1 tablespoon lime juice.  Bring to a simmer over medium high heat, stirring constantly.  Remove form the heat and cool completely.  Store in frig. if not using right away.
For the margarita:
1/2 of a medium (6 inch) cucumber, peeled and cut into thin slices
3/4 cup good quality blanco tequila (They use Milagro Blanco, as did I)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup simple syrup
Cucumber slices for garnish
Combine the cucumber, tequila, lime juice and simple syrup in a blender. Blend until mixture is as smooth as you can get it.  In a cocktail shaker, combine half of the mixture with 8 to 10 ice cubes, cover and shake for a full 15 seconds.  Strain through the shaker’s top into 2 glasses (they use martini glasses at the restaurant) Garnish with cucumber slices.  Repeat with the remaining margarita mix.  Makes 4 drinks.
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Goat -Teas

 

Hands down the best cucumber sandwich I’ve ever had.  No need to throw a ladies tea to have an excuse to make these as they would also be a great hors d’oeuvre for a summer evening.  This platter did not make it to the cocktail hour however.  It was empty within minutes of these photos. Recipe by MaryCorpening Barber and Sara Corpening Whiteford, in their book, Cocktail Food.
3/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar.
2 cups very thinly sliced red onion
2/3 cup goat cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
12 slices white bread, crusts removed, cut into 3 inch squares (They suggest buttermilk bread.  I usedPepperidge Farms Original White.)
1 English cucumber, cut into 1/16 inch slices, cut in half
Pour the vinegar over the onions and let marinate in a small bowl until the onions are soft and malleable, at least 30 minutes.  Strain and refrigerate until chilled.
Mix the goat cheese and cream cheese together in a small bowl.  Season with white pepper.
Spread about 1 tablespoon of the cheese mixture on each piece of bread.  Cut each piece into 4 triangles. Arrange 2-3 slices of the cucumber on each triangle.  Top with 1 or two slices of red onion.
Makes 48 sandwiches.
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Greek Chopped Salad

I love chopped salads and the classic Greek salad lends itself well to this style.  Each bite can have the perfect balance of flavor…the boldness of the feta and olives with the mild freshness of the cucumber, lettuce and tomato.  To make this a whole meal just add a side of grilled chicken, salmon, or shrimp. This recipe was inspired by one published in Food and Wine magazine in September 2003.
 
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 of a small shallot
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons canola oil
salt and pepper to taste
 
4 cups mixed greens, I used red leaf lettuce and arugula, coarsely chopped
1 English cucumber, peeled, halved, seeded and diced
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, diced
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
 
In a blender, combine vinegar, shallot, sugar and olive oil and puree.  Taste and season with salt and pepper. (Since these ingredients can vary so much, always taste a vinaigrette and be prepared to add a touch more oil or vinegar as necessary)
 
In a large bowl, toss together the chopped mixed greens, cucumber, tomatoes, dill and olives.  Add half of the dressing and taste for seasonings.  Then add the remaining dressing as needed.  Sprinkle with feta before serving.  Serve 4-5.
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In the mood for Blackberries!

Well, it is the first day of July and the farmers markets are in full swing here in North Carolina.  Last Friday I picked up a basket of the biggest, sweetest blackberries that you have ever seen.  In, A Skillet Full, a Cookbook of Traditional Southern Lodge Cast Iron Recipes and Memories, 87 year old Bertha Russell Gonce is quoted as saying, “We have blackberries growing beside the fence in front of our house.  We pick them in July, but we have to watch out for ticks, chiggers and snakes.”  I guess that I got off easy because all I had to do was pull over at a roadside farm stand outside of Boone, NC to find these beauties.  You will find Miss Bertha’s recipe for Blackberry Cobbler below.

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Bramble Custards

 

Blackberries, the fruit and the bush, are known as brambles in parts of the UK.  Brambles are actually thorny plants in the genus Rubus, in the rose family, and not surprisingly raspberries and boysenberries belong to the same group.  So I’m calling this a Bramble Custard because 1) it sounds charming and 2) you can certainly make these with raspberries or any other berry in season for that matter.  Above you will see that I have made them it little 2 1/2 ounce ramekins…a great size for a light dessert.  See photo below for a larger version, about 1/2 cup, which had to be cooked about 10 minutes longer.  I adapted this recipe from one in Petite Sweets, by Beatrice Ojakangas.
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 cups fresh berries
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon fine lemon zest
1 teaspoon corn starch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  Have ramekins available.  This made 16 servings in my little white ramekins and 7 in the larger green ones.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Add the ricotta and mix until blended.  Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until completely incorporated.  Add the vanilla, sugar, and cream and mix until combined.
Spoon the batter into the ramekins and place them in a large rimmed baking sheet and place the sheet on the oven rack.  Carefully pour enough hot water in the baking sheet, around the ramekins, to reach about halfway up the sides.  Bake for 30-45 minutes, until set.  The tops will not have browned at all.  Remove ramekins from the water bath and set aside to cool slightly, then refrigerate until chilled through.
To make the fruit glaze and topping:  Place 1 cup berries in a saucepan with the water, sugar and lemon zest and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes while you occasionally stir and mash the berries to release all of their juices.  Remove from heat and strain the berry mixture to remove the pulp and seeds.  Wipe any remaining seeds out of the saucepan and return the now smooth berry sauce to heat gently.  Stir in cornstarch mixture and stir for a minute or two until it thickens slightly.  Remove from the heat and gently stir in the remaining blackberries.  Set aside to cool. (note:  you can make a sauce like this from any type of berry and you can adjust the amounts of water, sugar, and cornstarch as needed, based on the size and sweetness of your berries and on the berry/sauce ratio that you prefer.  It’s a flexible process.)
Top the chilled custards with berries and sauce and either serve right away or refrigerate until needed.  You can make the custards the day before you need them if you like and cover them, refrigerated.  The berry sauce can also be made ahead of time and kept covered at room temperature but I would wait until you are within a few hours of serving to top the custards.
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Blackberry Salad with Goat Cheese and Candied Pecans

Andrew Swallow, of Mixt Greens restaurant in San Francisco, is the creator of this beautiful recipe.  He calls it “Berry” (using strawberries and blackberries) and has published it in the Spring section of his new book, Mixt Salads.  Perhaps in California, good blackberries can be found year round but for me this is pure summer.  In any case, it is a genius combination of flavors.  (The changes I made to this recipe were very slight, except for one, which I won’t describe because I think it must have been a typo in the original.)
 
Candied Pecans
 
2 cups pecans
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
 
Dressing
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh minced thyme leaves
1 teaspoon honey
1 cup canola oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces mixed greens
1 pint blackberries
2 teaspoons of fresh mint, finely slivered
2 teaspoons of fresh basil, finely slivered
4 tablespoons goat cheese
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a bowl, toss together the pecans, sugar, salt, cumin, cayenne pepper and 1 tablespoon water.  Spread this mixture on a sheet pan and bake for about 10 minutes, or until just toasted.  Watch carefully.
For the dressing:  Combine the vinegar, shallot, mustard, thyme, and honey in a blender.  Slowly add the oil in a stream and blend until emulsified  Season with salt and pepper.
For the salad:   Gently toss together the greens, blackberries, mint, basil, and pecans with dressing and serve with a tablespoon of the goat cheese.  Makes 4 servings.
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Blackberry Cobbler

Here is Miss Bertha’s cobbler, as mentioned at the start of this post.  Note that the topping does not form a crumbly crust but rather sinks into the cobbler.  While this may not be the the most beautiful of desserts, it is mighty fine served just barely warm with a couple of scoops of premium vanilla ice cream.
1 1/4 cups flour, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, plus 3 tablespoons
1 cup sugar, divided
1 egg
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups fresh, unsweetened blackberries
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
 
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Combine 1 cup of flour, baking powder , and salt,  Set aside,  in a mixing bowl, beat together 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup sugar until fluffy.  Add the egg and beat.  Combine milk and vanilla and add with dry ingredients to the butter mixture,  Pour into a greased 2 quart casserole.   Spoon the berries over the batter.  Combine the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour. cinnamon, and 3 tablespoons butter.  Mix until crumbly.  Sprinkle over the berries.  Bake for 30-35 minutes.  

In the mood for Thai!

I didn’t grow up eating Asian food….unless you count the brief period when, as teenagers, my friends and I liked to get won ton soup and fried rice from a local inexpensive “Chinese” restaurant.  Come to think of it, I stopped eating there when I heard a rumor that each won ton in their soup was filled with a tiny little chicken brain.  How embarrassing to think that I believed that they were taking the time to extricate a chicken brain for each and every won ton wrapper!

 
Flash forward a few years and, living in Paris, I discovered the amazing variety of Asian cuisine…. Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, not to mention the many unique provinces of China.  When I first started making these dishes at home, after returning to the States, some of the ingredients were hard to find.  That has really changed in recent years and most big grocery stores have decent Asian sections.  But don’t let that stop you from popping into one of the small Asian markets that may be around town.  The prices are better and you will be inspired by the variety of ingredients!
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Beef with Thai Sweet Basil Leaves

Thai basil has small leaves and a subtle licorice/mint flavor.  It is definitely worth a trip to an Asian market which may offer it in the produce section in the summer months.  For the last couple of years, it has been available here in nurseries so I have been growing it in my herb garden.  If it isn’t to be found near you, another basil variety can be used,  but you may need to tear the leaves if they are large.
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
4 tablespoons chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, cut into thin wedges
2 small red chilies, sliced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8-10 ounces beef fillet steak, thinly sliced
1 handful Thai sweet basil leaves
Mix the fish sauce, oyster sauce, stock and sugar in a small bowl.  Place a wok or heavy skillet over high heat and add 1/2 tablespoon of the oil.  When very hot, add the onion and chilies and stir fry until just wilted and starting to brown, 2-3 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside while you cook the beef.  Add another 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the wok and then add about half of the beef and half of the chopped garlic.  Scatter the beef slices so that they can cook in a single layer and let them cook undisturbed on one side 1-2 minutes until starting to brown nicely.  Then toss the beef a couple of times quickly and remove it to the plate holding the onion mixture.  Repeat with remaining beef and garlic, adding a bit more oil to the wok only if necessary.  Return everything to the wok and stir in the sauce mixture.  Stir for 30 seconds to let the sauce heat through and to coat the beef. Add the Thai basil leaves and remove from heat.  Serve over Jasmine rice.
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Peanut Shrimp with Rice Noodles

 This recipe is based on one that was published in the New York Times in August of ’09.   This is a wonderful dish because the sauce stays light and fresh while still delivering an amazing amount of flavor.  I like butterflying the shrimp because they curl up quickly into perfect bite sized morsels, but if your shrimp are very small you might want to leave them whole.
1 lime
1/3 cup chunky peanut butter
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
12 ounces flat rice noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound raw medium to large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut in half lengthwise
1 bunch green onions, sliced, white and light green parts only
1 cup grated carrots
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 minced jalapeno chili
coarse ground black pepper
salt
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

In a small bowl, combine peanut butter, sugar, fish sauce, the zest and juice from 1 lime, and just enough water to make a smooth sauce.  (about 1/3 cup)
Cook rice noodles in boiling, salted water until just tender, being careful not to overcook or they will become mushy.  Drain.
Heat a large skillet over high heat.  Add oil and quickly stir fry the shrimp until they curl and begin to turn pink.  This should only take a minute or two.  Add scallions, carrots, garlic and jalapeno and toss around until the vegetables soften a bit and the shrimp is just cooked through.  Remove from the heat.
Toss the rice noodles, shrimp and peanut sauce together and season well with the black pepper (and salt if necessary)  Serve hot or room temperature. (Serves 4)
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Cashew Salad

 
In Savoring Southeast Asia, Joyce Jue writes that cashews are grown in abundance the south of Thailand and that this “culinary gem” is a perfect snack to serve with iced limeade or beer.  Be sure and have all of the ingredients prepped and ready to go before you fry the cashews.  And be mindful of the fact that nuts burn very quickly so watch them carefully.  As I did not have any fresh lemongrass, I substituted a bit of fresh lemon zest.  Not the same thing at all but OK in a pinch for this particular recipe.
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 pound raw, large, whole cashews
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 green onion, thinly sliced (white and light green parts)
1 lemongrass stalk, tender midsection only, finely minced
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped celery leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 red jalapeno chili, seeded and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Place the still hot cashews in a bowl and immediately add the shallots, green onion, lemongrass, celery leaves. mint, and chili.  Toss to mix well.
To make the dressing, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar in a small bowl.. Stir until the sugar dissolves,  Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well,  Turn out onto a serving plate and garnish with the cilantro leaves.

In the mood for Pasta Salad!

I’m picky about pasta salads.  I don’t care for creamy sauces or large pasta shapes in cold or room temperature dishes.  But there are good reasons to have a few pasta salads in your repertoire.  They can be made ahead of time for entertaining and as a matter of fact, most of them taste better after they have had time to marinate a bit.  Also, they are easy to transport to picnics and pot lucks.  So, as you will see, my favorite pasta salads will use the smaller pasta shapes and will have light, flavorful vinaigrettes.

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Orzo Salad with Corn, Tomatoes, Feta, and Chili-Lime Vinaigrette

 
This is a wonderful salad from one of my favorite cookbooks, At Blanchard’s Table, by Melinda and Robert Blanchard.  Please note that in the photo above, I substituted Israeli couscous for the orzo (because I was out of orzo) and left out the feta cheese (because feta wasn’t going to work with the main dish I was serving that particular night).  But I am going to give you the original recipe because I’ve made it many times as written and it is always a hit.  Then you can make your own changes if you want.  I did love the texture of the big Israeli couscous and will definitely use that again.
1 cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 ears of corn)
12 ounces orzo pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lime peel
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
15 grape or cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 ounces feta cheese, drained and crumbled
1 tablespoon mined fresh rosemary
freshly ground black pepper
Bring a medium sauce pan of water to boil, add the corn and cook for 1 minute.  Drain and set aside.
Cook the orzo in a large pot of lightly salted water until it is al dente, 6-8 minutes.  Drain and rinse thoroughly under cold water, Drain well again and transfer to a large bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, lime peel, lime juice, lemon juice, chili powder, salt and pepper.  Toss the dressing with the orzo .  Add the corn, tomatoes, feta, and rosemary, and toss gently to blend,  Taste for salt and pepper, and serve a room temperature.
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Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, and Fresh Basil Vinaigrette

Here is my go-to recipe for Basil Vinaigrette.  In this dish, I’ve tossed cooked orzo, cherry tomatoes, and bits of fresh mozzarella with the vinaigrette and served it at room temperature seasoned with a pinch of salt and lots of coarse ground black pepper.

Basil Vinaigrette

1 bunch fresh basil
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a blender or food processor, chop basil and garlic.  Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to make a smooth vinaigrette.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.

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Sesame Noodles with Cilantro and Scallions

I’m crazy for this particular recipe for sesame noodles and I actually found it on another cooking and recipe blog.  This won’t happen often because 99% of my recipe collection comes from books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as inspiration from my local market or from restaurant menus.  But since I have been making these noodles a lot this summer, I really would like to share the recipe.  So here are my photos, and if you would like to try this recipe, feel free to visit Joanne Choi’s blog at:
http://weekofmenus.blogspot.com/
I do add the optional red pepper flakes to her recipe and then add slivered carrots, cucumber and red bell pepper.
She has a search feature so you can enter the name of the recipe and it is easy to find.
This is the one pasta salad that I actually prefer to serve cold from the refrigerator instead of at room temperature.  It’s the perfect summer side.
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In the mood for a Little Green Salad!

CLEOPATRA: My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But, come, away;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.

From Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606


To William Shakespeare, “salad days” referred to the carefree days of one’s youth.   No doubt this allusion came from the image the freshness, tenderness, and greenness of the lettuce leaves.  In any case, every day is a salad day at our house because there is rarely a meal served without one.  Here’s hoping that this will keep us young.

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Bibb Lettuce with Tarragon Vinaigrette

  When we were living in Bordeaux, France, we frequented a wonderful restaurant called L’Entrecote,which, translated literally, means “the cut of meat taken from between the ribs”.  They didn’t take reservations and there was almost always  a long line to get in.  Once you were shown to your table, a server would  simply ask three questions. 1. Still or sparkling? (water)  2. Red or Rose? (wine) 3. Rare or Medium? (steak).  And Voila! dinner would begin to arrive.  The first course was a salad similar to this one, tender bibb lettuce with walnut halves in a light vinaigrette.  The salad was promptly followed by a large platter of sliced sirloin steak in a rich fragrant sauce (secret recipe, I was told) and a huge mound of hot, crispy fries.  I see copycat recipes for the L’Entrecote steak sauce from time to time on various foodie web sites.  Maybe someday I’ll try a few and see if any of them are “it”.
     This is a salad from Tyler Florence’s book, Dinner at My Place.  The lightly toasted walnuts in the photo are my addition.
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 lemon, juice only
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 head Bibb lettuce
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
Combine shallot, mustard, and lemon juice in a large salad bowl.  Slowly drizzle in oil as you constantly whisk to emulsify the dressing.  Once all of the oil has been incorporated, stir in honey and fold in the 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon.  Season with salt and pepper.
Wash the lettuce and separate the leaves.  Smear the dressing up around the insides of the salad bowl and toss the leaves in the bowl.  (By doing this the leaves pick up a light,even coating of the dressing.)  Fold in the 1 tablespoon tarragon leaves and serve.
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Field Greens with Blue Cheese and Crispy Shallots

This is a wonderful combination of flavors that I like to serve with beef or chicken hot off the grill and big baked potato.   The crispy shallots are an extra step, I know,  but they can be prepared in advance and kept at room temperature for hours.  The first time I made them, I wanted to sprinkle them on everything!  Here is the method for frying the shallots, and a recipe for a nice balsamic vinaigrette that will compliment the flavors of this salad.
For the crispy shallots:
Peel and thinly slice 5-6 large shallots.  Heat 1-2 inches of vegetable oil in a small pan over medium high heat.  Add the shallots to the oil, making sure to separate the rings.  Adjust the heat so that the shallots are cooking at a slow simmer and stir them around every few minutes.  The point is to fry them slowly so that they develop an even, golden brown color.  This should take about 10-15 minutes.  Remove the fried shallots to a paper towel to drain.  Sprinkle lightly with salt.  They will crisp up as they cool.

For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Whisk all ingredients in a small bowl.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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Red and Green Leaf Lettuces with Tomatoes and Peppercorn Ranch

 

Homemade ranch dressing has such a clean, fresh taste.  Try to whip this dressing up the the morning and store in the refrigerator.  It will thicken up nicely and the peppery flavor will have time to develop.

Peppercorn Ranch Dressing

1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried minced garlic
2 teaspoons coarse ground black pepper
Salt to taste

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.  Season with salt to taste.